Weekly Musing: What Is Critical Thinking?

I wanted to touch upon the concept of Critical Thinking as I feel it is something that is unforgivably lacking in society. Everyone’s a critic but does that mean we actually know what critical thinking is and engage upon it? The dictionary definition is that it is a noun meaning disciplined thinking which is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.

Notice in the definition it doesn’t state an emotional response or opinion. Yet whenever I try to participate in discussions about a book or whatever, I see more and more people believing their opinion counts as critical thinking. Far, far too often criticisms I see are based on emotion, irrational thinking, and personal biases. There’s this aggravating mentality of “I’m right and you’re wrong because…because you just are!” I find this incredibly painful to see. It truly hurts my heart to see people argue, not debate those are two separate things, over a point. Both sides have the critical part down to an ugly art but neither remembers to stop and think.

When examining a piece of literature in an intellectual manner, emotions need to be separated from the analysis. This is difficult because one of the beauties of literature is its ability to make us feel. Whether they’re positive or negative emotions, the written word has a glorious power on our heart. It’s also human nature to be emotional; we are animals after all. Yet our brains are wonderfully evolved to handle this separation.

When it comes to analyzing literature, our head must take center stage. Far, far too often we forget this. In our debates (arguments) we want to prove our interpretation is the only right one. We employ non-critical thinking techniques by calling each other names, claiming someone’s position is stupid or wrong because they don’t agree, and fail to cite any evidence to support our stance. When things get this way it gets no one anywhere; people shut their minds off when they argue and their hearing becomes selective.

I’m not sure how or why this happens and that’s not my focus today. What I want to talk about is encouraging us all to work harder on critical thinking. Look again at the definition of critical thinking and let’s break it down by each of the key parts.

Clear: When analyzing something, is your argument clear? It doesn’t have to be a complicated stance in fact it’s probably better if it is communicated as simply as possible. This makes it easier to stick to the point(s) for all parties involved.

Rational: Is your criticism coming from a place of rational thought or is it based on an emotional response? Often times our emotions are irrational. How many times have you struggled to understand why you feel the way you do at a particular moment? Why does something make you happy today when yesterday it wouldn’t have? Again, employ the gray matter between your ears when analyzing something. Does criticism make logical sense, stripped of my known personal biases as well as emotion? Get in touch with your inner Spock if you will.

Open-minded: This is probably the toughest thing to do. Even more than trying to be rational. Based on our life experiences and values, being open-minded is damn near impossible for any of us. No one is taught be truly open-minded and it shows in our actions. That being said, through careful practice and lots of reading (after all the more reading one does the more exposure we get to the lives of others) we can open our minds. This isn’t the same as allowing others to try and change who we fundamentally are as a person. Just hear the other points even if you don’t agree with them.

Informed by evidence: Oh boy, how do I explain this simply? Evidence in this case refers to what is in the text. Not what the author’s intent was even if you’ve read or watched interviews with the author. Keep in mind whatever the author’s intent was when they wrote the piece isn’t the same as what the reader will get out of it. As humans we all bring our life experiences to the page as we read. Our points of reference are different from the author’s. We see and interpret things differently from the author. That’s okay and is wonderful. So when we speak about our analysis being informed by evidence, it needs to be based upon what the text says. From that we can then use the text to support our position or to try and refute the opposing point.

We’ve got the critical part done but the thinking portion is something that needs to be worked on by all of us. Keep the above points in mind whenever you engage in a discussion not only about literature but also about other aspects in your life. Keep in mind, though, it is okay to stick to your guns and principles but treat others with kindness and respect.



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